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Ivory Tower Bigots

Campus Week: How the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement supports the careers of shoddy university scholars

David Mikics
October 17, 2018
Illustration: Mirko Cresta
Illustration: Mirko Cresta
Illustration: Mirko Cresta
Illustration: Mirko Cresta

Anti-Zionism is a form of racism like any other: The erasing of a nation’s experience, the denial of their right to speak. Often it comes twinned with the old anti-Semitic gestures. Jews are cruel, enjoying domination for its own sake; they are money-hungry and care nothing about others. They are, in fact, a world historical evil, unique among the nations. The fact that American universities are the new breeding ground for this moral idiocy is no surprise, since the academy has so often provided a home for repellent ideologies. Now that Stalinism and Maoism are passé, anti-Zionism has become the latest way to excuse massacres, now rechristened “resistance,” in the name of history.

“The Zionists are committing astonishing acts of vulgar thievery in full view of people around the globe,” wrote Hamid Dabashi, a tenured professor at Columbia University, earlier this year. Israel, he said, rules over Arabs “with brutish violence and unmatched vulgarity.” Dabashi, the Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature, had earlier argued that decades of “systematic maiming and murdering” of Palestinians had left “deep marks on the faces of these people,” Israeli Jews: on “the way they talk, the way they walk, the way they handle objects, the way they greet each other, the way they look at the world … a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep.”

Dabashi made his comments in the South Atlantic Quarterly, the prestigious academic journal published by Duke—proof that anti-Semitic drivel is the one form of overt bigotry that many elite schools not only tolerate but encourage. Not all campus anti-Semites sound like Hamid Dabashi. Some take pains to present an objective scholarly front. But the front is a sham. Many are propagandists rather than scholars. Some of these people are Jewish, and no doubt think of themselves as philo-Semites rather than anti-Semites, as long as the Jews in question are the good, anti-Zionist ones, like themselves. But anti-Semitic tropes make up the backbone of their work. They treat Israel as a unique evil among the nations. Their wish to erase Israel from the map makes them part of the discourse of anti-Semitism, which, like all racism, is structural.

Don’t get me wrong: Our campuses are not crawling with overt Jew hatred. Some ambivalence about Israel stems, quite legitimately, from the failures of Israeli policy. Many a grad student has critiqued “the Zionist project” while at the same time feeling a real attachment to Jews and Jewishness. But anti-Semitic themes can subtly infect your thinking without your knowing it: judging Israel by harsher standards than you apply to any other nation, or supposing that Jewish nationalism must stem from prejudice rather than a wish to be a free people. Anti-Semitism, like anti-black racism, affects even people who simply can’t believe they might be prejudiced. A strident bias against Jewish nationalism tends to involve someone in anti-Semitic tropes, whether intentionally or not. The anti-Zionist Jew tries to ignore the fact that an overwhelming majority of the world’s Jews believe that Israel should exist, and that close to half of them are Israeli. By campaigning against Zionism, students and faculty construct a historical fantasyland of non-Zionist Jewishness that can survive only in a somewhat unreal environment like the university campus. The fantasy is that Israel, like racist South Africa, will be replaced by what the late Muammar al-Qaddafi called “Isratine,” a sheer chimera: the mating of sworn enemies where all will live in harmony and terrorism will magically vanish because, as we all know, it’s only Israeli oppression that causes terrorism.

There’s a difference between criticism and eliminationism, despite the deliberate blurring of the two terms that is part of the deeply dishonest rhetorical strategies adopted by tenured Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) supporters and their acolytes. I myself regularly criticize, sometimes even condemn, Israeli policies. I am pro-Palestinian enough to argue that Israel ought to withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank. When I do this, I am criticizing Israel. But calling Israel an abomination and a unique evil, as the BDS-ers do, is not criticism, or part of any normative scholarly practice. It is a purely racist discourse, which uses academic language as a cloak for malevolent pseudoscience.

Effectively destroying Israel is the purpose of BDS. “If the refugees were to return, you would not have a two-state solution,” proclaimed Omar Barghouti, co-founder and spokesman of the BDS movement. “You would have a Palestine next to a Palestine, rather than a Palestine next to Israel.” During a talk at UCLA, Barghouti reportedly replied to a 10th-generation Israeli student, “You aren’t indigenous just because you say you are.” He added that if the student intermarried with Arabs for a few generations, though, she would have a chance to become a native of Palestine. So Barghouti’s BDS, unlike Israel, has a racial definition of citizenship.

BDS shares a central demand with Hamas and Hezbollah: the return of the millions of descendants of the 1948 Palestinian refugees to their ancestral homes in what is now Israel. This is no doubt why the celebrated academic theorist Judith Butler, a leading proponent of BDS, called Hamas and Hezbollah “progressive” forces. Progress means erasing Israel, and if alliance with genocidal Islamists is required to accomplish the goal, so be it.

BDS has a home in prestigious academic departments, especially Middle East studies departments, which have adopted this ugly doctrine, targeting a historically oppressed people, as a badge of their commitment to social justice—and as a litmus test for those who wish to gain tenure, or even participate in class discussions. Columbia’s Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies departments came under fire over a decade ago when Jewish students brought charges that professors were shutting down any sympathetic remarks about Israel in the classroom. Things don’t seem to have changed much in Middle East studies at Columbia, which is still the home of Dabashi, as well as George Saliba, who reportedly told a Jewish student that she was not a Semite because she had green eyes. (He denied the incident happened.) Columbia’s in-house report on the scandal excused Saliba’s racial insult, helpfully noting that his comment was probably “integral to an argument about the uses of history and lineage [rather] than an act approaching intimidation.”

Columbia professors Joseph Massad, Rashid Khalidi, Nadia Abu El-Haj, and Gil Hochberg specialize in what reads to me as propaganda rather than scholarship. In Islam in Liberalism (2015), Massad gives us his kooky take on Jewish nationalism: “Semitism … begins to look indistinguishable from anti-Semitism,” he writes, because Zionism “guarantee[d] that the figure of the Semite … would be identified solely with and displaced onto the Arab,” and by doing so “affirm[ed] that Jews could become Europeans only in Asia.”

Massad’s writing style is no worse than that of most academics, which is to say, very bad indeed. He seems to be saying that by calling themselves a nation, Jews created anti-Semitism and, just as the anti-Semites claim, separated themselves from Europe. But Jews really wanted to be European gentiles and knew they could only do this in Palestine, where Palestinians would become the new Jews and Jews the new anti-Semites. Got it?

Massad’s twisted logic might be expected from a man who celebrates “the state feminism of the Iranian Islamic Republic” and condemns human rights campaigns against homophobia and honor killing as a malign new form of colonialism. His schoolyard taunt is: The West does it too, so how dare they criticize other cultures! Instead, we should trust the mullahs.

Nadia Abu El-Haj, another Columbia professor, relies on Shlomo Sand’s discredited idea that Jews never thought of themselves as a nation until 19th-century Jewish intellectuals invented the Jewish “race.” In her book The Genealogical Science (2012), El-Haj wishes to show that both Jewishness and Zionism base themselves on dubious racial claims because they lack a true sense of nationhood. El-Haj’s earlier book was a hatchet job on Israeli archaeology and its supposed ideological bias. Among other self-serving bloopers, El-Haj dated the Hebrew Bible, which is in fact many centuries older, to the second century BCE. The goal of this kind of propaganda, loosely veiled as scholarship, is to delegitimize Jewish nationalism and Israel.

Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia, does his best in his book Brokers of Deceit (2013) to bar any Israeli claims to the world’s sympathy. Khalidi condemns then-President Barack Obama for saying that Israeli children shouldn’t have to be afraid to board school buses. When he describes Israeli treatment of Palestinians he cites Edmund Burke on how the British in Ireland showed “national hatred and scorn toward a conquered people, whom the victors delighted to trample on.” True, 18th-century Irishmen were not trying to expel the British from England, nor did they rain rockets down on London, but whatever. Israelis obviously delight to trample on their enemies, and that’s why they have created “a unique and exquisitely refined system of exclusion, expropriation, confinement,” Khalidi writes (italics mine). The notion that Israel faces “existential threats” is, Khalidi insists, a myth. Iran, whose side he takes against Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, is in fact quite harmless.

It is fitting that Khalidi occupies the Said chair, for, like Said, he is a great apologist for, and whitewasher of, the ayatollahs. Khalidi also explains how the Israel lobby convinced Washington to go to war against Shia minorities in the Middle East: the “tail-wagging-the-dog,” he notes. Outrageously, Khalidi invokes George Orwell when he accuses Israel of talking about its need for “self-defense”—the scare quotes are his. This phrase, he says, is mere newspeak, a cover for innate Israeli aggressiveness. But it’s actually Khalidi and his like who resemble the rulers of Orwell’s Oceania. They make the genocidal threats of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranian mullahs vanish down the memory hole. Israeli peace offers were fake, they tell us. Gaza is still really occupied by Israel. Fear of terrorism is a mere excuse for oppression. Suffering is only real when it’s inflicted by Jews or the United States.


If Columbia’s Middle East studies is the command center for those seeking an ardently anti-Zionist classroom, Duke University Press has found its scholarly niche as the BDS movement’s publisher of choice. Columbia’s Gil Hochberg in Visual Occupations (2015), published by Duke, sees the Palestinian glorification of suicide murderers as “a defiant practice of anti-colonial national remembering.” How can we criticize Palestinians who celebrate their martyrs, since as Hochberg points out, inaccurately, “it is mandatory for every eighteen-year-old in Israel to serve in the Israeli army,” and so “the majority of Israeli families make precisely the same choices in relation to their own children”? Yes, precisely.

Hochberg has ushered us into a looking-glass world: The Israeli army tries, not always successfully, to minimize civilian deaths. Terrorists, by contrast, want to kill as many civilians as they can. The distinction is lost on Hochberg. Later in her book, Hochberg somewhat nervously praises two films, Waltz With Bashir and Lebanon, that anti-Zionists have blackballed for featuring sympathetic Israeli protagonists. One hopes that her career will not suffer as a result.

Another spectacularly biased and even more bizarre Duke byproduct is The Right to Maim (2017) by Jasbir Puar, professor of women’s studies at Rutgers. Puar recently became notorious for giving a lecture at Vassar in which she retailed blatantly fake news about Israel harvesting organs from Palestinians. Gaza is, Puar suggests, “an experimental lab for the production, maintenance, and profitability of biopolitical debilitation … not a death camp but a debilitation camp.” (There we have “profitability” again: those greedy Israelis feeding off Palestinian bodies.)

In Puar’s upside-down world, it doesn’t count in Israel’s favor that the IDF avoids shooting to kill when confronted with violent protesters and “warn[s] Gazans of impending strikes with phone calls.” Instead, the warning calls are just “a reminder of how powerless [the Palestinians] are.” Not killing people is “the IDF strategy of keeping Palestinian casualties low to deflect attention, sympathy, and solidarity from the Palestinian struggle.” It’s clearly inconceivable to Puar that Israelis might simply wish not to kill Palestinians. They must have a cruel, conniving purpose in view.

For Puar, Israel’s Jews are an army of racist breeders with a military view of birth. She quotes a researcher named Meira Weiss, who remarks that “the worldview of Israeli gynecologists is based on military terminology; abortion is justified by military thinking that killing is necessary for goals.” Israeli prenatal counselors, writes Puar, are “unapologetically eugenic,” adhering to “the biopolitic of population racism.” In a rare burst of honesty, she admits that Israel subsidizes IVF, egg donation, and artificial insemination for Palestinian citizens as well, but somehow this fact doesn’t impede her argument that Israeli prenatal policy is an expression of Jewish racism.

Puar claims that Israel deliberately targets Palestinian hospitals and ambulances. We also learn from her that Israel is starving Gaza, another well-known piece of fake news. By contrast, in all of Puar’s 267 pages, there is not a single sustained criticism about acts of violence committed by a Palestinian. The Israeli victim of terror, Jewish or Arab, maimed, stabbed, blown to pieces, simply disappears. Yet the fact that her accounts of recent history appear one-sided is apparently not a problem for Duke University Press.


Ideologies grip us for deeply personal reasons, and so it’s no surprise that anti-Zionist polemics can be quite revealing of their authors’ own psychic turmoil. Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (2012) by prominent BDS-er Sarah Schulman, published by Duke University Press, is in a class of its own, pathology-wise. Schulman teaches creative writing at CUNY. Her book is a document of prejudice, the author’s own, and it displays a bewildering lack of common sense. Schulman objects to flying on the Israeli national airline El Al because, she says, seeing Jews in “military, police and security positions … repulses me.” In an Israeli bathroom, a religious woman “decided to be helpful in that awful Jewish way I remember from my childhood, so invasive you just can’t breathe.”

Schulman describes how she got used to marching with Hamas against “Israeli attacks on Gaza,” another creative redescription. Though she is initially disturbed by “the signs carried by some of my fellow protesters”—signs she is too coy to describe—she realizes that “it doesn’t matter what I think about Hamas.” Schulman shares her credo with all fellow travelers and useful idiots: What matters is to choose the right side. If you find yourself next to would-be genocidaires and Holocaust deniers, you’re duty-bound to cover for them. “I have entered into a relationship with Palestine,” she declares, and part of the love affair is hugging your girlfriend’s genocidal relatives. As we have learned from our current president, some very fine people can march next to neo-Nazis without guilt.

“My own ignorance continues to astound me,” Schulman confesses, and it astounds the reader as well. Schulman exploits the persona of the naive, well-intentioned “activist,” but she is in fact an ideologue of the worst sort, her mind impervious to facts. Zionists are a tool in the hands of “oil interests (of course).” America uses Israel as “a military base … from which to conduct wars and control resources.” Israel is a pawn of evil American capitalists, without whom “there would be no state of Israel.” This is perhaps a refreshing change from Rashid Khalidi’s hoary anti-Semitic cliché that the Israeli tail wags the American dog, but it is just as implausible.

Schulman showcases a terrifying quote from Judith Butler, who says that for Israelis, Palestinians are “no longer even understood to be human in a recognizable sense.” When Palestinians are killed, Israelis “are thrilled, because they think their safety and well-being and happiness are being purchased, are being achieved through this destruction.” How this kind of aggressive insanity can be meaningfully distinguished from the dehumanizing racism directed against other minority groups frankly escapes me, and I am a tenured professor, too. Butler falls back on the anti-Semitic notion that Israeli Jews delight in the death of their enemies, unlike other peoples, who presumably have far deeper resources of compassion.

Schulman couldn’t agree more. Hearkening to Butler’s judgment that Israeli Jews lack decent human responses, she exults, “What is life-giving about leadership like Butler’s is that it instantly allows one to leap forward.”

Schulman’s great leap forward, all too predictably, is that Israelis are somehow exactly like Nazis. “Every time the Israelis do something like this,” Schulman writes—by “this” she means the Gaza war—“they create a century of historical trauma. I am still uneasy around Germans, and the Holocaust has been over for almost seventy years.” Here we have the heart of Schulman’s case: Israelis are Nazis. It’s unclear what Schulman wants Israel to do to defend its citizens against terror. Nothing, one supposes, since the sight of Jews in uniforms is so repulsive. Better that Israel shouldn’t exist at all. Championing Palestinian right of return to a binational state, she wants to erase Israel from history, something that she dreams can happen without an ounce of blood being spilled, in order to quiet her own personal demons. The Israelis, of course, will be doomed, and still be akin to Nazis, but at least anti-Zionist American Jews can remain unstained by their guilt.

Schulman is refreshingly jargon-free compared to Julie Peteet, an anthropologist at the University of Louisville, who theorizes in South Atlantic Quarterly that “in Israel/Palestine, time is baldly and visually relational: Palestinians wait, Israelis move.” Israeli Jews display the “relentless march of colonists and their speedy mobility,” which deforms the “indigenous temporal rhythms” of Palestine. The “relentless march” and “speedy mobility” of Israelis will come as a surprise to anyone stuck in the endless traffic jams between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Military checkpoints are a heavy burden to Palestinians, and some of what happens there is needlessly humiliating to them. The more reporting there is about abuses at checkpoints, the better. But there’s a difference between saying this and claiming, as academic anti-Semites do, that checkpoints exist in order to humiliate Palestinians. No: Their purpose is to prevent Israeli citizens, both Arab and Jewish, from being murdered. Similarly, the “apartheid wall,” as the anti-Israel mob calls it, was not built so that Israel could ghettoize and demean Palestinians. It was built to stop a wave of suicide murderers from turning Israeli schoolchildren into bloodied body parts. The separation barrier ended the Second Intifada. Had it been built earlier, fewer Israeli and Palestinian lives would have been lost.

Other university presses have joined Duke in printing surreal propaganda. Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca Stein in Digital Militarism (Stanford, 2015) are experts in using the Orwellian memory hole. They focus on the wars in Gaza, but you’d never guess from their book what prompted those wars. The Second Intifada, they write, was “a period characterized by a heavily militarized Israeli response to mass demonstrations across the occupied territories, backed by an Israeli public disenchanted by the collapse of the Oslo process.” Here we have a wholesale redescription of history. For “mass demonstrations” read “mass murders of Jewish civilians by Palestinian terrorists”; for “collapse of the Oslo process” read “Arafat’s rejection of a peace deal and decision to sponsor a wave of terrorism.”

Kuntsman and Stein are adept at polarizing: The only reason you might say that Hamas uses human shields, they suggest, is that you are a right-wing fan of state violence. They don’t want to acknowledge that there is a realm of facts. Hamas either relies on human shields or it doesn’t, and there is an enormous weight of evidence that they do.


Do facts matter anymore? One source of BDS support, writes Daniel Swindell, is that Israel and Palestine have become tokens of righteous emotion rather than subjects of academic study. Campus activists think that “Israel is simply wrong the way we all recognize that sexual assault is wrong. … Israel is so obviously wrong that a speaker discussing the conflict need not have scholarly expertise on the subject—he or she need only be a good person concerned about human rights.” We all know that Israel is a guilty oppressor, just as we are all against rape—any moral person must feel the way that we do. Swindell’s piece, which recounts his arguments against BDS as a student at the University of Missouri, appears in Anti-Zionism on Campus, edited by Andrew Pessin and Doron Ben-Atar, an important new collection of essays by professors and students who have been victims of BDS.

Anti-Zionist lecturers come from all disciplines, and none. Many of them know next to nothing about the history of the Middle East. The Jews’ unashamed stealing of Palestine is the only fact one needs to remember. The history of Israeli peace offers is never to be mentioned, like the wars that Arab countries launched against Israel. A colleague insisted to me years ago that no Arab nation had ever threatened to push the Jews into the sea. But the historical record shows his statement to be false many hundreds of times over. Such wholesale historical revisionism turns Jews into guilty oppressors and Arabs into innocent victims.

The anti-Israel mobs described in Anti-Zionism on Campus don’t protest in the usual manner, by handing out leaflets and chanting slogans at a safe distance. Instead, protesters burst into lecture halls and shout down invited speakers, even left-wing ones, with repeated chants of “intifada,” an especially chilling term to Israelis, for whom it means murderous attacks on them and their families. As a result, many Jewish organizations have concluded that it is just too risky to bring even left-wing Israeli speakers to campus in view of the BDS riot that is bound to occur.

BDS specializes in smear campaigns, threats and intimidation, often abetted, more or less unwittingly, by the university administrators who have tacitly given them the right to shut down free speech on campus. Here is a short list from Pessin and Ben-Atar’s book:

¶ In January 2017, the student government at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies resolved that no Zionist could speak on campus on any topic, even ones unrelated to Jews or Israel. Since over 90 percent of British Jews support Zionism, the resolution bars them in effect from speaking at SOAS.

¶ At University College London in October 2016, screaming protesters trapped a group of Jewish students and a lecturer in a locked room until the police could come and free them.

¶ A student at UC Santa Cruz burst into tears when her classmates responded to her research paper on Zionism by calling her a Nazi and her professor stayed silent.

¶ A student at CUNY who had voiced polite support for Israel was savaged on Twitter: “yo he’s an avid zionist which inevitably means he’s a racist, white supremacist, religious supremacist colonizer.”

¶ An archaeology grad student is afraid to travel to Israel for a dig, since so many North American archaeology programs are housed in anthropology departments sympathetic to BDS.

¶ In 2014 a tenured lecturer at an American Anthropological Association conference told his audience that travelers arriving at Ben-Gurion airport were separated into Jews and non-Jews. His speech was met with enthusiastic applause.

The toxic atmosphere at Vassar, where a BDS supporter heads the Jewish studies program, even freaked out anti-Israel writer Philip Weiss, who attended a Vassar campus forum devoted largely to vicious attacks on a proposed ecological study trip to Israel and Jordan. It “was truly unsettling,” Weiss wrote. “Torrents of anger ripped through the gathering. … The spirit of that young progressive space was that Israel is a blot on civilization … the clash felt too raw, and there was a racial element to the division.” When even the founder of Mondoweiss balks at the violent rage of campus anti-Zionists, it’s a sign that their movement has become unhinged.

The root of the anti-Zionist appeal lies in its claim that Israelis are racist colonialists who took over (or “stole,” to use the preferred term) someone else’s country. Judea Pearl gives a fitting answer to this charge in his essay “BDS and Zionophobic Racism,” from Anti-Zionism on Campus. Pearl, a retired professor of computer science, is the father of the journalist Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded by anti-Semitic jihadists in 2002. He asks a series of reasonable questions to those who would class Zionism as a form of white supremacist colonialism. I wish that Pearl’s list could be recited to every Middle East studies seminar on Israel and Palestine. Commenting on the frequent BDS designation of Israeli Jews as “white settlers,” Pearl asks readers if they have ever known:

¶ One case of white settlers moving into a country they perceived to be the birthplace of their history.

¶ One case of white settlers speaking a language spoken in the land before the language spoken by its contemporary residents.

¶ One case of white settlers whose holidays commemorated historical events in the land to which they moved—not the lands from which they came.

¶ One case of settlers who did not name towns like New York, New Amsterdam, and New Wales … but after names by which those towns were known in ancient times.

¶ One case of settlers who narrated their homecoming journey for 80 generations in poetry, prose, lore, and daily prayers.

Pearl’s list could help students grasp the validity of Israel’s existence, rather than seeing Israelis as mere colonialists. Such rethinking would help combat the BDS narrative that has become so common in our classrooms.

Hundreds of college and university presidents have signed a letter condemning BDS, and the movement has failed so far in its effort to bar Israelis from U.S. campuses. Yet Pessin and Ben-Atar report a 2016 Frank Luntz poll showing that 43 percent of college students favor boycotting Israel and 39 percent think that “all” Israeli land should be “returned” to Palestinians.

The BDS cult is succeeding where it counts, in propagandizing students who come to universities to learn and who walk away as carriers of a grotesque ideological virus. It is unlikely that the movement will disappear anytime soon, especially with so many of its promoters enjoying state-funded tenure for life and occupying departmental positions that enable them to handpick their successors. Having gained a strong and growing foothold in academia, BDS will likely continue to spread racist propaganda, divorced from history and reason, that uniquely targets Jewish and Israeli students, in violation of civil rights laws that promised to ensure equal access to higher education in America regardless of race or national origin, for many years to come.


Read more from Campus Week, when Tablet magazine takes stock of the state of American academia and university life.

David Mikics is Professor of English at New College of Florida. He recently edited The MAD Files: Writers and Cartoonists on the Magazine that Warped America’s Brain, and is also author of Stanley Kubrick.